The Study of Magic - Chapter 1

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THE STUDY OF MAGIC
Chapter One


The oversized manor house sat like a fat cow amid the brown fields. Rows of dried-out wheat stalks stubbled the ground, providing no cover for Valek. He and Ziva Moon camped in the small woods nearby, waiting for darkness. A chilly wind blew from the west. It rattled the dead leaves and smelled of rain.

Valek studied the crude map Ziva had drawn on the cold, hard ground. She'd marked all the entrances, windows, and the best route to Ruby, her daughter's, room. A path that would reduce the risk of Valek encountering anyone, especially her exhusband, Dothan. Not that Valek couldn't handle the powerful magician, but this was a classic snatch and dash operation. It worked best without any witnesses.

"I should go with you," Ziva said. "You're a stranger. Ruby will be scared." She tucked her long brown hair behind an ear. Where it stayed for three seconds before the wind pushed it back into her pretty face.

It was a bad idea for so many reasons. "You need to stay here. If Dothan catches you, I'll have to save you and then there'll be no chance of rescuing your daughter because he'll be on alert. Don't worry, Ruby won't even wake up until she's in your arms." Thank fate, or the four-year-old child was bound to make enough noise to rouse the household.

"Is sleeping juice safe for kids?"

Mothers. Valek suppressed a sigh. "Yes. It's just a small dose. You should focus on your plans for after you have your daughter. Do you know where you're going to stay?"

"My mother--"

"No. That'll be the first place Dothan looks."

"I've a cousin in--"

"No relatives or friends."

"I could return to--"

"No previous addresses."

"Maybe Fulgor--"

"No cities in the Moon Clan's lands."

She huffed. "I am a magician, too. I can use my illusion magic to hide from Dothan."

"Are you strong enough to keep up your disguise every single time you're in public?"

"I won't need--"

"He's wealthy and well connected. He'll hire people to search for you in all the obvious places. You can never let your guard down."

"So, I'm supposed to pick a random clan and city in Sitia?"

"Yes. And I'd suggest even at your new location, you wear a disguise. It doesn't have to be magical."

He gave her a moment to collect her thoughts. When they had rode north from Delip in the Cloud Mist Clan's lands, Valek tried to discuss all these logistics with her, but she was so focused on getting her daughter, she refused to consider an after. Once he rescued Ruby, all hell would break loose, and she wouldn't have time to make these important decisions.

Valek had promised Ziva a favor when she'd helped him escape not only the jail in Nubium, but the noose. And she had aided him in stopping Tam, an infamous assassin, from killing Yelena.

"How will you support yourself? Do you have any money saved?" he asked.

"I...have the salary I earned as a guard."

He waited, but she didn't continue. "Did you like working at the jail?"

"No. It was horrible. I only did it so I could make friends with the other guards and maybe convince them to help me get Ruby back. When you were dragged in, it was the perfect opportunity for me."

"Is there any other job that you're qualified for?"

She stared at him. "Job?"

Clearly she had not thought anything through. He considered Sitia. The country was divided into eleven clans and, while most people lived in the land of the clan they were born in, it wasn't unusual for them to move to another. "Do you have any association with Thunder Valley, the capital of the Stormdance Clan lands?"

"No."

"Great. That's your new home. Once you arrive, go to twenty-five Squall Lane and tell them you're part of Valek's protection program. The password is waterspout. They'll get you and Ruby settled in a new place and find you a job."

"But that's so far away."

He bit back a groan of frustration. Valek had hoped to put Ziva and Ruby on their horse and send them on their way. But if he did that, they'd probably be captured right away. The Commander would be annoyed at Valek's delay in returning to Ixia, but he couldn't do a poor job even if it added two weeks to his trip. To avoid that, he'd send them to one of his safe houses.

Part of his duties as Ixia's Chief of Security was to keep an eye on the country of Sitia, their neighbor. One of the ways he kept track of the political climate in Sitia was by sending members of his corps to collect intelligence. These agents lived in safe houses that Valek frequently used when he was traveling in Sitia. Twenty-five Squall Lane was one such house.

When darkness settled over the valley, Valek watched until all the lantern lights in the manor house extinguished. Then he remained by their small fire for a couple more hours, ensuring that the occupants inside had enough time for their slumber to deepen. Patience was critical in his line of work. Hours and hours of preparation would often be followed by a short burst of activity.

Ziva paced around their campsite, burning off her nervous energy. Before he left, he gave her a list of instructions.

"Once the horses are ready to go, wait for us," he said. "Do not approach the house. Understand?"

She bit her lip but nodded.

Careful not to trod on any crunchy broken stalks, Valek headed toward the house. The half-moon cast just enough light to reveal the path. His outfit comprised of a simple midnightblue tunic and pants, Hidden in the various folds of the fabric were darts filled with sleeping potion, a set of lock picks, and his daggers. His broadsword was too long and cumbersome for this type of operation. It was sheathed on his horse's saddle along with his pack.

When he reached the house, he looped around to the back door and picked the lock. It sprung easily. Entering the kitchen, he closed it behind him but left it unlocked for a quick getaway. He stopped and listened for any sounds of movement. It was dark and quiet. The fire in the hearth had been banked for the evening, but the smell of roasted meat lingered on the air, making his stomach grumble. Travel rations were a poor substitute for a home-cooked meal.

Following Ziva's instructions, he crept through the house. His heart kept a steady pace despite the situation. This was familiar territory for him; working as an assassin all those years ago had inured him to the danger. However, he kept alert. He might be confident but he wasn't stupid.

Ruby's room was at the end of the hallway on the second floor. To avoid any creaky stairs, Valek shimmied up the banister. The door next to Ruby's was ajar--her nursemaid's quarters. Pausing by the gap, he listened to the woman's steady breathing. Then he entered Ruby's room.

Dolls lined the shelves and a pile of stuffed animals sat in the corner. Her small bed was low to the ground. The blankets were rumpled, but there was no sign of Ruby. Valek searched the rest of the room. No luck. Had someone tipped Dothan off?

The girl's pillow was dented, and a faint warmth lingered on the sheets. Remembering the nursemaid's open door, Valek checked, hoping the girl sought comfort from her nanny. The woman slept alone. Biting back a curse, Valek retreated.

The household staff and farm hands all slept on the third floor. Would the girl go to one of them? There was another possibility, but Valek was loathed to consider it.

At the other end of the long hall stood a set of grand double doors. Dothan's room. As Valek approached, he noticed they hadn't been closed properly. He peered through the small gap. Sure enough, Ruby slept curled up next to her father. Also on the bed was a puppy. It stared quizzically at the door.

He had seconds before all hell broke loose.



Worldwide Release Date: April 19, 2024 Maria V. Snyder Publisher

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